Armed with decades of acting experience, a rolodex full of high-profile industry colleagues, and the rights to a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, Meg Ryan enjoyed plenty of advantages in making Ithaca, her directorial debut, so, while it would be unfair to expect her to produce a masterpiece her first time out, the total ineptitude on display here is still genuinely stunning. The film is confused in conception, dreary in execution, and completely lacking in forward momentum. Scenes drag on with no sense of purpose, while the actors generally seem lost. The overall effect is like watching an early rehearsal for a play, when the rhythms of a scene haven’t yet been established and the actors are still finding their characters.
Based on William Saroyan’s 1943 novel The Human Comedy, Ithaca tells the kind of straightforward coming-of-age story that would seem to be difficult to mess up too badly. After his father (Tom Hanks in a miniscule cameo as a ghost) dies and his brother (Jack Quaid) is shipped off to fight in World War II, 14-year-old Homer Macauley (Alex Neustaedter) begins working as a bicycle messenger for a local telegraph company to support his family during the war. Though he forms a tentative bond with the company’s only other employees, Willie (Sam Shepard), an elderly teletypist, and Tom (Hamish Linklater), a thirtysomething clerk, the job is a difficult one, often requiring Homer to deliver the news of a soldier’s death to his family. The solemn task brings Homer closer to the malignancies of the adult world than he would like to get.
Ithaca isn’t even competent at laying out its relatively straightforward plot, much less at reaching deeper into the story’s themes of dawning maturity and the responsibilities of manhood. Several narrative strands—a local obsession with the 220-yard low hurdle race, Homer’s crush on a pretty girl—are introduced and then quickly abandoned, while a few brief digressions involving Homer’s family, including a bizarre Little Rascals-type idyll in which Homer’s younger brother, Ulysses (Spencer Howell), becomes transfixed by a robot in a shop window, are haphazardly tossed into the narrative stew. Meanwhile, the climax of the film’s major dramatic through line is screamingly obvious from the moment Homer’s brother appears on screen writing a letter promising to bring his Army buddy back home with him when the war’s over.
The characters are even more hazily sketched than the narrative. The actors visibly struggle to figure out who these individuals are supposed to be. Neustaedter does his best with Homer, but the character leaves only a vague impression. Tom is so poorly defined that it’s difficult even to guess at what Linklater is attempting with his performance, an odd collection of neurotic tics and awkward line readings. A great actor like Shepard is reduced to half-coherent mumbling, while even Ryan herself, appearing in a small role as Homer’s mother, seems lost, delivering a leaden performance that displays none of the natural charm that made her a star. Maybe she was just trying to match her performance to her directing style: listless, stiff, and confused.